Emily Candela, "Disaggregating the Experiences of Medieval Female Fasting Saints"


However, Bynum mentions that the association of medieval fasting with an attempt to control one's life may be a result of modern habits of thinking. It is possible that the element of control is overemphasized in modern writing on the subject because it is such a well-known and important feature of anorexia nervosa. The claim that women renounced food because they lacked control over everything else in their lives is advanced by Bynum. However, she excludes the possibility of their diagnosis as anorexic because she cites the religious causes for the saints' regulation of food intake. Bynum believes that fasting was rooted in the religious tradition of denying oneself the pleasures of the physical world and marginalizes the element of control itself.14

Another major symptom of anorexia nervosa which is found in the accounts of medieval holy women is the propensity to work with, think about, and to be involved in food. Many anorectics are "preoccupied with thoughts of food."15 Medieval female saints certainly fall into this pattern as they had visions in which food was involved with Christian symbols. Bynum relates the story of a nun who had a vision in which Christ appeared "on a platter as food."16 Food and ingestion often served as metaphors for union with God. Many accounts tell of holy women dreaming that they were drinking blood from Jesus's body17 or even nursing from the breasts of such religious figures as Mary or St. Francis of Assisi.18 Women also valued giving away food and had a special adoration of the eucharist, which was regarded as an extraordinary form of sustenance for the saints.19

Despite the similarities between medieval fasting behavior and the modern conception of a type of fasting behavior defined as anorexia nervosa, it is possible to argue that the differences in the conditions experienced by the women of the Middle Ages and the modern context in which the term anorexia nervosa developed are so significant as to warrant a distinction between the lifestyle of these medieval women and the eating disorder we are familiar with today. In both cases a form of food asceticism arises to some degree as a result of social conditions, but the significances of food to both cultures are quite dissimilar. Correspondingly, the motivations behind fasting are different for each period, as are the goals of food asceticism.

14. ibid., 193.
15. DSM IV, 540.
16. Bynum, 131.
17. ibid., 133.
18. ibid.,.24, 101.
19. ibid., 131.
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